What are we talking about when we discuss socio-economic position and health in developing countries?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA wide body of literature has found that socio-economic position (SEP) has profound impacts on the health status of individuals. Poor people are sicker than rich people. We find this relationship all over the world and in countries like the United States, it couldn’t be more apparent.

Poor people, particularly poor minorities, are more likely to see their children die, are more likely to be obese, have worse cardiac outcomes, develop cancer more often, are disproportionately afflicted by infectious diseases and die earlier than people who are not poor. There is ample evidence to support this.

However, the exact factors which lead to this disparity are up to debate. Some focus on issues of lifestyle, diet, neighborhood effects and access to health care. Poor people, particularly minorities, live hard, eat worse, live in dangerous or toxic environments and have low access to quality care all contributing to a perfect storm of dangerous health risks.

However, even when controlling for all or any of these factors, we still find that poor people, and particularly African-Americans, still get sick more often, get sicker and die earlier. This leads us to speculate that health disparities are not simply a matter of access to material goods which promote good health, but are tightly related to something less tangible, such as social marginalization and racism, which are both incredibly difficult to measure. Though difficult to quantify, however, we do have plenty of well documented qualitative and historical data which indicate that these relationships are entirely plausible.

The awful history of slavery and apartheid, however, is somewhat (but not completely) unique to the United States. Further, our ideas of class come from another Western idea, the Marxist concept of one privileged group exploiting the weak for their own financial gain, particularly in the context of manufacturing.

Yet, though these ways of conceiving of race and class are so specific to the West, they are applied liberally to analyses of developing country health, with little consideration of their validity.

It is not uncommon to see studies of socio-economic status and health. The typical method of measuring socio-economic status in developing countries is to examine the collection of household assets such as TVs, radios, bicycles, etc. and, using statistically derived weights, sum up all of the things a household owns and call that sum a total measure of wealth. The collection of total measures for each household are then divided into categories, with the implication that they roughly approximate our conception of class.

Not surprisingly, it is usually found that people who don’t own much are, compared with people who do, at higher risk for malaria, TB, diarrheal disease, infant and maternal mortality and a host of other things that one wouldn’t wish on anyone.

But this measure is problematic. First, there is often little care taken to parse out which items are related to the disease of interest. For example, we would expect that better housing conditions are associated with a decreased risk for malaria, since mosquitoes aren’t able to enter a house at night. We would also expect that people with access to clean water would be more likely to not get cholera. If we find relationships of SEP with malaria or diarrheal disease which include these items, these associations should be treated with suspicion.

Second, if we do find a relationship of “class” with health, can we view it in the same way in which we might view this relationship in the United States? A Marxist approach, with a few exploiting the many for profit, in sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The manufacturing capacity of African countries is tiny, and most people are sole entrepreneurs operating in an economy that hasn’t changed appreciably from pre-colonial times. Stripping away any requirements of legal protection of property rights, Africa looks incredibly libertarian.

Further, the elite in Africa hardly profit financially from the poor, receiving their cash flows mainly from abroad in the form of foreign aid or bribery and foreign activity is mostly limited to resource exploitation, which doesn’t make a dent into Africa’s vast levels of unemployment. While the West is certainly complicit is Africa’s economic woes, post slavery, the West rarely engages Africans themselves.

So, is it valid to attempt to apply the same ideas of class to African health problems? Is there a way to attribute health disparities to class in societies with limited economic capacity and where the “citizenry” is only marginally engaged and groups suffer mainly from a reluctance to cooperate and engage people of other tribes or neighboring countries?

Certainly, the causes of poverty and marginalization in Africa need to be examined, but I don’t think that we can approach them in the same way we do in the States.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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